Mar as motha a dh’atharraicheas e?

Recent rummaging through old files on old discs as part of a domestic computer upgrade turned up an interesting find. I presented this paper 19 years ago at the first Fasgnag conference at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig – long before Àrainn Chaluim Chille, before even the extension to Àrainn Ostaig. What a lot of changes there have been in the Gaelic development world in the intervening period – and I’m not just referring to new buildings in the Isle of Skye.

If I remember correctly the paper was well received on the day, with a number of participants remarking on how the mutual confidence issues between interlocutors that I was raising in relation to adult learners were mirrored among young adults raised in Gaelic-speaking families in the Western Isles. Two decades on, is the question of how to establish a minimum shared “comfort level” for Gaelic speaking just as salient, if not more so, irrespective of how you started learning it, or at what age?

Plus ça change? Well, maybe. You certainly don’t have to look hard for reasons to be pessimistic. But you could say the case for Gaelic has always been counter-intuitive at a surface “transactional” level of analysis. Dig a bit deeper, though, and more interesting questions emerge. How to welcome and embrace bilingualism, with both arms? How to assert and celebrate the importance of speech in ordinary daily language behaviour, and so place writing skills in their proper context? These are positive questions, with general as well as specific Gaelic application. And finding answers may require yet more counter-intuitive thinking. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the remaining Gaelic-speaking communities outside academia, such as they are, would be a good place to start looking. After all, they are the closest we’ve got in Scotland to an everyday working model.

About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 31/10/2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Gabh mo lethsgeul a bhith ‘ga fhoighneach, ach carson a rinn sibhse a’ Ghàidhlig a dh’ionnsachadh?

    I’ve seen research suggesting that few people can acquire the correct pronunciation of a second language once they are past their teens. If adults are learning from a non-native teacher, won’t this factor simply be compounded, i.e. the learner will produce an imperfect copy of an already substandard article? I would be especially concerned in the case of Gàidhlig because (a) the phonology is complex, and (b) access to native speakers is limited. Or do you see it as a stark choice between “bad Gàidhlig or no Gàidhlig”?

    • gordonwellsuist

      Why did I start learning Gaelic? Well, it was a long time ago, and a full answer could be quite lengthy. Let’s just say it was a mixture of close family connections, linguistic curiosity, and some sense of ideological commitment for various reasons.

      I don’t have any figures to back it up but my hunch would be that, yes, most adults learning a second language do retain traces, at least, of their first language phonology. But I would be reluctant to concede that it’s quite impossible to get acceptably close to “native” pronunciation. A decent grasp of fundamental, and actually fairly simple, phonetic principles helps a lot.

      Your last question is one every learner has to answer for themselves. I think one of the things I was trying to say in that paper 20 years ago was that learners of Gaelic, and perhaps any “heritage language”, have a heightened interest in the “quality” of their utterances. Speaking Gaelic is not just a “transactional” thing – for a learner at least. So, yes, you want to speak Gaelic, but beyond that you do generally want to speak “good Gaelic”.

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